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It's cringeworthy how seriously I took my job when I first started teaching early childhood dance twenty-five years ago. I was a try-hard with a catastrophic fear of falling short of my own expectations. You’d think two to five year olds were a population that wouldn’t stress me out, but like everything else, they did. When asked to teach a series of classes in a small rural preschool north of town, as customary, I over-prepared. I had planned, choreographed, then re-planned each section of class. On the forty-five minute drive north to the school, I made sure the radio was off so I could ruminate one more time before teaching. I knew how smug two year-olds could be.
Upon entering the school, I was greeted like Norm from Cheers. I was flooded with the very effective way young children create kinship. Immediately upon entering class, my name was shouted cheerfully and children ran over to share something about their lives or request a hug. In this moment, I experience a significant positive shift in energy. I know that I’m acknowledged, that my presence is appreciated, and my students are happy to see me. I feel a deep sense of belonging, just by showing up.
I had planned class around the concept of “energy;” the different types of effort a dancer uses in movement such as soft, sharp, heavy, light, etc. In my estimation things were going smoothly. We finished warm-up and I put on Greg and Steve’s Animal Action. Greg, or was it Steve, invited us to “Moooove like a tiger!” I had planned on being a stalking tiger. I moved stupidly, imperceptibly slow, exaggerating the delicacy with which my paws hit the ground, embodying the soft, smooth, light quality of a tiger on the prowl with every cell in my body, crouching and swatting absurdly slow.
No one was paying any attention to me really, but I still thought my performance was connecting. That is, until a tiny blond dancer in green corduroy leggings crawled next to me and sweetly whispered, “You be the mamma, and I’ll be the baby.” Instantly I broke character. I was gutted. My tiger-eyes glazed over, leaving me vulnerable in the jungle as I scanned for my scripted words to explain to the corduroy-tight girl that the point was to explore the qualities of a crawl, not to actually crawl around and be anything. I told her “We aren’t really pretending,” and I think I even used the phrase “qualities of movement” with her. She was three. With zero sense of indignation, she crawled away in search of someone fun.
That misguided exercise was like trying to feed wads of beef to a toothless newborn. The past twenty five years have been a quest to close the divide between myself and the young dancers I teach. Many failed classes combined with more knowledge of early childhood development narrowed that chasm. While my experience has drawn a clearer picture of a young child’s world, the greatest gift in my journey has been that my students have reflected back to me exactly who I am both as a human and an individual. The contrast and division between our two life experiences brings my culture of adulthood into clear focus. In Emily Plank’s book Discovering the Culture of Childhood, she suggests, “Viewing childhood as a unique culture shifts the nature of adult/child relationships from one of hierarchy and power to one of mutual respect.” Children’s choices, especially within the context of dance class, help me understand exactly what it means to be a human being. Children remind me of the stuff I’m made of; emotions, curiosity, and connection.
When the girl with the corduroy tights whispered in my ear, she effortlessly and unselfconsciously invited me, a stranger and authority figure, to play. She presumed perhaps I would like to join her world, so she attempted a connection. She immediately found common ground and took a chance. I admire that. I’m much more an introvert, the type to cling to the leg of any acquaintance in unfamiliar social situations. Once she realized I had denied her invitation to play, she gracefully moved on, avoiding a negative response to my rejection. She clearly and understandably had no idea what I was doing, so her lack of response wasn’t altruistic, but the fact that a gentle response to a denial to play is enough for me to reflect back on the differences between my adult-ness and her child-ness. In an equivalent adult exchange, my hunch is such a denial of invitation would not be met with such courtesy.
“You be the mamma and I’ll be the baby” also suggested we engage in pretend play: a type of play at the center of how a child makes sense of their world. Had I played along, I might have helped her understand feelings that were too scary for real life, or helped her sort out where she fits within the unfamiliar world of a dance class. At their heart, pretend games are the building blocks of our adult experience of empathy, and they’re the beginning of taking on perspectives other than our own. Corduroy girl had placed herself in her own educational sweet-spot, in Vygotsky’s “zone of proximal development” in which a child can achieve a new level of development with the guidance of an experienced helper.
Warm enthusiastic greetings, social invitations, taking different perspectives, responding to impoliteness with grace, and knowing how the best to learn are all important perspectives that often (but of course not always) occur naturally from a source of intuition in children. As a dance teacher, my young dancers leave me filled with energy and inspiration, and I’m convinced they hold perspectives that I’ve been encultured either to dismiss or forget. I now value the space in-between the “what” children do and the “why” they do it, because that’s where the goods are; that’s where precious insights into my own humanity lie. If we could imagine honoring and giving service to the insights our students bestow, how might that influence our teacher/student relationships? Could it contribute to children’s sense of agency? Would it offer contributions to the nature of education itself? As a dance educator, working with young children has taught me it’s difficult to distinguish between teaching and being taught.
So “Yes, I’ll be the mamma. Where should we go?”
Karen Forss Hogan is a movement artist with over 25 years of dance experience who has been designing and implementing arts-integrated children's movement classes for the past 17 years. She is a founding member of Wyoming's first professional dance company, Contemporary Dance Wyoming. In 2012 Karen founded Galliope Creative Movement where she reaches over 130 children weekly through a variety of creative dance classes in preschools throughout Jackson Hole, Wyoming and surrounding rural areas. Karen has presented her work at regional NAEYC conferences. Karen holds a Masters of Science in Dance and a Bachelors degree in Architecture. Her diverse experiences inform her integrated approach to teaching movement.
Photos by Jeff Hogan